Modern musicals try to dominate audiences, unlike their far superior American forebearsby Herb Greer / August 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Remember the old saw: when something is too stupid to say, you sing it. That’s not true today. Now you make a West End musical out of it, viz. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest, Whistle Down the Wind. This show is so bad in so many ways that I do not propose to dwell on it. And yet, and yet-this monstre th??trale does have a certain interest: it illustrates almost perfectly why so many new shows are inferior to so many older (usually American) musicals.
We have seen plenty of these classics revived in recent years. The Royal National and Opera North mounted wonderful productions of Guys and Dolls, Show Boat and others. Even an adaptation such as Carmen Jones, a straight commercial production, not only made the average new musical look sickly, but was superior in many ways to its original model. More recently we have been offered the latest Broadway production of Show Boat and Opera North’s revival of Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing, which-although only a step up from a script-in-hand staging-far surpassed Lloyd Webber’s noisy bombast in terms of wit, theatrical pace, and pure heart-lifting entertainment. Alhough lacking the glitzy (somewhat insect-like) carapace of Chicago, the Gershwin and Jerome Kern spectacles overflowed with a molten alloy of joy which almost none of the newer work can match. At the National, Trevor Nunn’s revival of Oklahoma! is doing this again.
Are these observations no more than curmudgeonly nostalgia? I doubt it. The score of the Lloyd Webber show gives a deadly warmed-over impression, drowned in banality and bathos; the opening “hymn” inadvertently evokes a number from a long-ago show called Espresso Bongo, in which phony pop star religiosity was sent up in a glutinous paean to the singer’s mum. Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind is a gob-smackingly crude, crass remoulding of a film whose success lay in delicate handling of a conceit which inched along a high wire over a swamp of pseudo-religious nonsense. Lloyd Webber dives into the swamp and wallows in it.
This suggests an author (and work) adrift, lacking any moral or theatrical centre of gravity and-despite the religious theme-any gravitas at all. What remains is a cloddish, risible fake piety. Curiously enough, another new show displayed the same hollowness. Infinitely superior to the Webber disaster, in writing, technical polish and performing bravura, Chicago is often funny, with a hard bright cynicism which…